I was a Pokéchild. I had a biscuit tin full of meticulously sorted trading cards and an undefeated Psychic deck built around Alakazam’s intensely frustrating Damage Swap power. My sister and I religiously watched each new episode of the animated series as it aired on Sky One at 8am every morning. The morning they surprised us with a double episode finale, we were late for school. When the Gameboy release eventually dropped in Ireland and I got my sweaty little paws on Pokémon Red, I spent a long and indolent summer trading and battling on the green with the kids in my neighbourhood. I played so much that I would go to bed with the infamously tinny Pokémon music still ringing in my ears. Back then, the world of Pokémon was colourless and rigidly two-dimensional, the gameplay repetitive and the storytelling lacklustre. But for all its flaws, the contents of that little red cartridge instilled in me a profound sense of wonder and curiosity.
I was eleven years old when the Pokémon craze swept through Ireland, which was also the average age of the protagonists in both the animated series and the games. I think, for many kids of my age, the near-universal appeal of the franchise didn’t come the collectability of the monsters nor the adrenaline of the battles (though these things were certainly factors). The beating heart of Pokémon was a world that said, “Hey kid, imagine if, instead of sitting at home and doing boring homework, you could be out travelling the world on an important mission with a loyal band of fantastic beast companions at your side?” It was an intoxicating proposition. When my Gameboy batteries were eventually confiscated and I was forced to go to sleep, I would indulge in detailed fantasies about what my life would be like if Pokémon were real.
Fast-forward to 2016 and suddenly the world of Pokémon is more real than that eleven year-old girl furiously tapping away at her Gameboy could ever have imagined. In 1999, the idea that almost everyone in Ireland would own a pocket-sized personal computer – one that could make video calls, respond to voice commands and surf the World Wide Web in full colour – was the stuff of science fiction. Now, my phone acts as a window to a parallel universe, an alternate world where vibrant monsters frolick in the streets. Pokémon Go creates a simultaneous sense of being privy to a magical secret and being part of a vast communal experience. The wonder is back and this time it’s on par with tumbling through the wardrobe into Narnia.
“Wow, this game does not discriminate based on gender,” said my friend, as we watched a graphic cut-screen of my female orc merrily decapitating a heavily-armoured female Bandit Chief.
As someone who has spent over 800 hours of my life playing The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, part of me wants to agree with this assessment. In some ways, it’s entirely accurate. In Skyrim, there’s a distinct absence of many of the gendered tropes that put me off mainstream videogames. In all my extensive play time, I never felt like I was willfully ignoring offensive portrayals of my gender in order to enjoy the rest of the game. In Skyrim, as in many open world RPGs*, your character is completely customisable; their gender, their appearance and their skill set all come down your own choices. Both male and female bodies are equally idealized (though even the bulkiest lady body does not look strong enough to wield a warhammer). In general, female armour is not more revealing or sexualised than equivalent male armour. (Albeit, there are some female sets that have an inexplicable chest windows, which, considering the climate of Skyrim, always makes me think “wow her tits must be cold”.)
Shelter. Banished. The Long Dark. Three games, all very different in terms of scope and gameplay, but with a unifying factor that ties them together: the total lack of supernatural threat. There are no zombies, no monsters, no mysterious forces at work in the shadows. Your deadliest enemies are snow, disease and starvation. But to say these game are about man (or badger) vs. nature would be reductive, because nature is also your closest ally in the quest for survival. Most of the time, death is the consequence of your own lack of foresight or intuition.
As a result, all three games are stark and compelling vehicles for emergent narratives; tiny events take on huge significance and the meaning of victory is skewed. Survival is the only quest, the only game worth playing and also the only game you can never really win. These games understand this innately and push the player towards understanding it too. Through your choices, you will spin stories of isolation, struggle and loss. Perhaps, eventually, you will discover your own version of victory.
Are you in the mood to snot-cry over a virtual badger? Then this the game for you! You play as a mother badger trying to guide her five adorable squeaking cubs to a new home, while keeping them fed and avoiding deadly hazards such as birds of prey and forest fires. As you shuffle resolutely through the world, the painted-paper landscape and whimsical music belies the brittle urgency that permeates the game.
Three times in as many months, I have had some variation on the following conversation with three different dudes.
Me: Blah blah blah so misogyny in games is obviously a thing blah blah… Dude: But girls don’t even play videogames! Me: Actually, they do. Recent surveys show that around 45 per cent of gamers are women and this number grows every year. Also, overall, the number of female gamers is significantly higher than the number of teenage male gamers, who are commonly considered to be the primary target market for videogames. Dude: … yeah, but girls don’t play real games.
You know, they only play Sims 3 or Angry Birds or whatever. They’re not serious gamers. Serious gamers play, you know, real games.
Inevitably, after a little bit of probing, the definition of “real games” turns out to be “Xbox first-person shooters.”
(This article was originally published on a now-defunct videogame analysis site, and has been backdated to reflect this. Also, spoilers for Pokémon Black and White)
When I was twelve years old, Red and Blue hit the playground and I spent hours of my young life shuffling through the tall grass, leaving piles of unconscious Pidgeys in my wake. Today, I do this in airports with a new generation of ubiquitous pest Pokémon whose names I cannot remember.
The real-life implications of my diligent training seem grim; I descend on an idyllic patch of grass full of local wildlife, and systematically beat, burn or electrocute them into submission. I will capture some of these Pokémon, but most will never get the privilege of training with me and massacring their wild counterparts for hours on end. Most of the little monsters end up rotting on my PC in suspended animation. But honestly, would it really be better to release them into the wild, so they can continue to be knocked unconscious on a daily basis by aspiring trainers?
This seems like a dire fate for any animal, but one of the crucial aspects of this universe is that Pokémon are not animals. They are considerably more sentient than animals, which implies they have agency. The franchise has used this to counter comparisons between Pokémon battles and, say, cock-fighting. Pokémon are our friends, we are reassured again and again. Pokémon have a choice and Pokémon like to fight! Battles are not an arena where dumb animals are enslaved and tormented into violence, but a beautiful collaboration between trainer and monster to achieve greatness as defined by the parameters of the fictional universe they inhabit.
The core tenet of any fictional universe is that the rules are different. Drawing real-world parallels is an interesting exercise, but usually a superfluous one when it comes to enjoying a game for what it is. If Professor Oak says Pokémon are my friends, it must be true. I did not at twelve years old (and still do not in my twenties) need any more justification to be able to enjoy Pokémon. I can buy into the straightforward premise of a happy world where cute monsters fight other cute monsters, no one really gets hurt and everyone is friends.
In light of this, it seems like a counter-intuitive choice to introduce a moral grey area in the obtusely-titled Black and White.
The bad guys in all previous Pokémon games followed the model of the anime; single-minded villains with hordes of dumb cronies and megalomaniac tendencies. The mission was innately satisfying in its simplicity: you must stop the bad people from taking Pokémon away from good people, because the good people are friends with Pokémon and the bad people are mean. In PokémonBlack and White, Team Plasma have more complex motives. Lord “N”, their mysterious young figurehead, is obsessed with the idea of separating Pokémon from humans permanently. The objective of Team Plasma throughout most of the game is to free all Pokémon from perceived slavery, to save them and to help them become “perfect.”
The most obvious layer of confusion is that Team Plasma are using Pokémon to battle as a means to this end. It must be obliquely assumed that there is literally no other way to incite conflict in the Pokémon universe, since we can hardly have poor Bulbasaur trying to deflect bullets with Vine Whip. At one point, after defeat, Lord N even acknowledges his hypocrisy: “Tsk! Why? Is it impossible for me to win while feeling bad about being a Trainer?” However, most of his rhetoric is consistent: Pokémon must be liberated from the service of humans. The existence of this character challenges the ethics of the Pokémon world.
I talk to everyone I meet in the world of Pokémon. As a result, I am resigned to skimming through a significant amount of filler dialogue before I find that elusive TM or Rare Candy. Thus, I am in a position to assure you that the chat that you will experience in Black and White is nothing short of cloying. Every second person will tell you how much they love Pokémon, how much your Pokémon love you, how Pokémon and people need each other, to grow together in peace and harmony with all the Pokémon hugging and singing and dancing. This is the entirety of the argument that is supposed to motivate the player to battle fiercely and unequivocally for the propagation of the current world order. I am aware that these games are marketed at twelve year olds. I feel immovably certain that my twelve year old self, strategy guide clutched in sweaty palm, would have been mortally offended by the puerile drivel offered by these games as an argument for keeping Pokémon confined to their balls.
N has a valid point. In fact, he gives voice to the single most common criticism of the concept of Pokémon, one that has been levelled at the franchise since its inception. For the first time, these criticisms have not only been acknowledged by the games, but incorporated as a keystone of the narrative. This had the potential to take the Pokémon universe in an excitingly unprecedented direction. The problem is that the moral question is presented to the player at the outset, and then promptly drowned under a tirade of cheerily vague assertions of friendship and love. We are introduced to a grey area and then told to ignore it. N is revealed to be yet another megalomaniac with daddy issues and no one learns anything.
The potential for moral ambiguity in Black and White was so huge that it was disappointing to realise that this game was not going to act as a debate. Instead, the question is clumsily shoehorned into the existing Pokémon formula and then quickly dismissed before anyone can get too uncomfortable. The introduction of a Team fighting for the freedom of Pokémon could have been a genius stroke, but half-hearted execution has firmly relegated Plasma to the hall of entirely unmemorable Pokémon villains. As a member of the older generation of Pokémon fans – and one who snored her way through Diamond and Pearl – this wasted potential ultimately ruined the game for me. For a brief tantalising moment, I thought I was dealing with a darker story and a moral grey area. Instead, Black and White managed to firmly live up to its name.